Hi all! Today it’s my pleasure to introduce Steven, a.k.a Fjorn the Skald from Fjorn’s Hall, a website offering Norse and Viking educational courses and online resources. He’s also an aspiring author of epic fantasy; his wealth of experience in Norse & Celtic history and medieval literature has allowed him to create a vivid, nuanced fantasy world filled with fascinating lore, history, and culture.
Welcome to the blog and thanks for taking part in Norsevember, Steven!
Thank you so much for having me, Alex! My website is called Fjorn’s Hall (fjorns-hall.com), and it’s a place where anyone can learn Norse history, literature, and lore. I offer a variety of courses, including full-length, ongoing courses covering the entire Viking Age (~793-1066) and shorter courses focusing on specific topics, including healing, land-spirits, and the Old Norse-Icelandic calendar—and I’m always planning more! These courses are all concise, causal, and have continuous content if there is a demand for it. As for the experience level, they’re suitable for both beginners and well-versed wanderers. Each course provides everything a person should need to know about a particular topic, from introductory material to in-depth discussions of specific examples.
Was there anything in particular that cemented your interest in Viking and Norse history and culture; has it always been an interest of yours?
Norse history and culture haven’t always been big interests of mine, surprisingly. When I decided to switch my major from Electrical Engineering (boring) to History (not boring) at the end of 2014, I just happened to see an open course called Viking History and thought “Wow! I don’t know anything about that…but it sounds pretty cool!” (I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Skyrim had something to do with that decision, though…) But I’d have to say that their sagas were what really cemented my interest. I was truly captivated by their storytelling and wanted to know more about it, so I undertook a few independent studies with the professor who taught that Viking history course (Dr. Jennifer Knight). From then on, my academic career was focused on what Norse literature can tell us about the society that produced it (which was, admittedly, post-Viking-Age Iceland, for the most part).
How did the idea for Fjorn’s Hall first come about? Has the idea for Fjorn’s Hall developed or changed at all over time in terms of what the website is and what you wanted to offer? How do you see its progression in future?
The Saga of Fjorn’s Hall actually began with a Tumblr blog I made back in 2015. It was called The Viking Life back then, and I was only an undergraduate who had just taken his first Viking history course earlier that year (so I didn’t actually know very much at the time). It was simply a place for me to share the things I had recently learned about the Norse, as well as reblog posts and pictures that formed a pleasant ‘Viking’ aesthetic. That said, it has changed considerably (and somewhat tumultuously) over the years: I started in earnest by writing free informal ‘crash courses’ on Tumblr in March 2016, decided to switch to podcasting in July 2018, and recently came back to the idea of writing (more formal) courses in May 2020. So the website used to be a student’s amateur blog (and podcast), but eventually ended up being a recent graduate’s more professional, subscription-based educational website. Given my own history and tendencies, I fully expect to expand the scope of Fjorn’s Hall to include webinars, conferences, and whatever else I get inspired to do in the future.
For just $5 a month, I see that a user can become a ‘Research Fellow’ gaining access to a selection of resources including interactive maps. They sound pretty cool; can you tell us a little more about them?
Reading about the past is undoubtedly informative, but visualizing and exploring it through an interactive map is an enriching experience. It allows a person to get a sense for how things were connected geographically, politically, and temporally, as well as just how impressive some feats actually were. I currently offer two interactive maps: one exploring medieval Iceland as a whole (~870-1537) and another following the pilgrimage of a single Icelander to Rome and Jerusalem in 1150. The first of those maps is particularly helpful for those who work with (or causally enjoy) saga literature from Iceland, which is often geopolitical (meaning that geography and regional authority frequently underpins much of their storytelling). For example, it displays the regions where each saga takes place, allowing a person to consider how they could create dialogue between one another through the interactions of their ancestors (and descendants) who lived and ruled in those regions. This can then be compared with locations that were contemporarily relevant to the author’s own time and audience. The second map, on the other hand, breathes new life into a medieval itinerary attributed to an Icelander named Nikulás Bergsson. It allows a person to virtually experience his journey, destinations, sight-seeing, and commentary as if they were accompanying him on the pilgrimage themselves. In the end, both of these interactive maps help us experience the Norse past in a different (and more immersive) way, allowing us to notice things that we might have overlooked (or never seen) otherwise.
You have a medieval Iceland course coming soon. I feel like this will be particularly interesting. Most nations have an ancient history that goes back beyond reliable records whereas Iceland was only settled in 870 AD. Does this make learning the history and becoming familiar with the traditions and culture of Iceland a little more straightforward or is it a little more complex than that?
Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. Although Iceland was settled much later than most, there are no natively-written sources from the settlement period (~870-930) itself. The earliest native text that we do have comes from Ari Thorgilsson the Learned roughly 250 years later, sometime between 1122 and 1133. This means that our understanding of Iceland’s founding, as well as the traditions and cultures they carried with them from Scandinavia and the British Isles, is shaped almost entirely by sources that were much removed (temporally, religiously, and socially) from the actual period they discuss. In other words, there’s a gap in our record that’s pretty hard to ignore. To make matters worse, most of those 12th-century sources are actually preserved in manuscripts from the 13th century or later. We do have some archeological evidence from the settlement period, of course—some of which actually challenges the accepted narrative—but it’s difficult to interpret it without relying on those later texts in various ways. My course on medieval Iceland will go into more detail about those sources and summarize how various scholars, such as Gunnar Karlsson and Jesse Byock, have dealt with the problems they pose. After that, I’ll recount the history of Iceland myself!
I admit this may be an dissertation question in itself, but in short, did the Icelandic people diverge from the history and traditions of their ancestors much over the Medieval period (for those unfamiliar, Iceland was settled by Vikings from Norway) or were the cultures of Icelanders and the people of Norway & the other Scandinavian nations relatively aligned?
Generally speaking, no. As far as we can tell, Iceland was pretty conservative, at least socially, politically, and linguistically. After all, according to their own founding story, many of them left Norway because there was a threat of great social and political change (i.e. King Harald Fair-Hair’s unification efforts). As a result, Icelanders established a political system that was more-or-less imported directly from Viking-Age Norway. They made several changes to this system over time, of course, but it essentially remained the same from 930 to 1262/4 (after which they became a dependency of the Norwegian crown and adjusted their system accordingly). Furthermore, as a migrant society, Icelanders were particularly keen to preserve their cultural inheritance from Scandinavia (even more so, arguably, than their fellow Norsefolk back home)—but they still converted to Christianity and wrote sagas rallying against Viking-Age systems of honor and feuding, which many sought to reform or replace in the 13th century. Thus, while Iceland may have clung to older traditions and systems much longer than the rest of Scandinavia (with the possible exception of Sweden), it wasn’t wholly untouched by outside influence. If anything, I’d just say that Iceland exhibited a more gradual (and often stubborn) change from their Viking-Age roots.
Onto your creative writing, then; a Skald of many talents! I imagine having a wealth of knowledge on the Norse sagas, mythology and history has helped inspire your developing fantasy world?
Definitely! In fact, it was what inspired me to begin with. Part of my fantasy world comes from my middle-school self’s imagination, but the bulk of it now was initially inspired by that first Viking history course I took back in 2015. Since then, I’ve handwritten over 260 pages (and counting) of history, lore, and language in my worldbuilding journals. I’ve developed a few writing systems (runic and cursive), wrestled with philosophical questions about their spirituality, and (most recently) began recording a few thousand years of its history (including how everything has changed and grown over time)—all things I have real experience with as a Norse scholar. That said, I don’t think I would’ve been able to achieve this depth of worldbuilding without spending so many years studying the sagas, Norse mythology, and the history of the medieval North academically. My background encourages me to develop a world that goes far beyond the bare necessities of the story I’m intending to write. As a historian, I know quite well that every story-worthy event has deep roots, and so my worldbuilding must be detailed enough to explain how the events of my story are consequential of the decisions made by those who came before them.
Obviously, this background and experience is a perfect aid to creating a rich and vibrant fantasy world that people want to spend time in, but to keep them going the plot has to be just as strong. What kind of story do you plan to tell? Have you been influenced in this by the Icelandic sagas at all?
Thematically, my story is about greed, the environment, and collectivism. It follows an herbalist who reconnects with the magic of the ‘old’ world as ambitious chieftains seek to consolidate power in the north amid growing tension from abroad. Like dragons hoarding gold, these chieftains abuse and weaponize the land itself as they vie for power, reopening the wounds from the war that alienated their ancestors from magic to begin with. Will their greed lead them down the same destructive path as before, or will that lone herbalist be able to rekindle the connection that life and land once shared? In developing this story, I’ve been inspired by Norse mythology, saga literature, and history as a whole, but two sagas have been especially influential: The Saga of the Volsungs and Egil’s Saga. If you’re not familiar with those, The Saga of the Volsungs is essentially about the corruption of gold and the deadly results of both greed and feuding between kin, while the beginning of Egil’s Saga is about King Harald Fair-Hair’s unification of Norway and the reaction and resistance of prominent families to such a ‘conquest.’ In my case, the gold-greed in The Saga of the Volsungs became greed for the land, its resources, and the power it brings, while the early events of Egil’s Saga became a framework for my own world’s power struggle between various chieftains attempting a feat similar to that of King Harald Fair-Hair’s.
Ok, last question!
You depart Midgard and Odin offers entry to Valhalla on the condition that you can demonstrate your passion for anything Norse related with a 3,000+ word essay. What are you writing about?
Cheese, of course.
Now, that may seem ridiculous at first (and I definitely say it somewhat jokingly), but a chapter of my Master’s thesis was actually dedicated to the significance of cheese not only in Njal’s Saga, but for women in medieval Iceland in general. Dairy products like cheese were a vital source of sustenance for medieval Icelanders, and women were the ones who typically made them and decided how to use them. Based on the example of Hallgerd from Njal’s Saga, I’ve argued that women could potentially weaponize their authority over objects like cheese to engage in feuding, despite it being an activity supposedly reserved for axes and men. In that saga, she steals cheese from a neighbor who insulted her husband in an attempt to redeem his lost honor. She thus used cheese, an object she had authority over, to take on an active, masculine role when her husband refused to do so himself. Aside from that, though, there was even a tax that was apparently payable with cheese called ostgjald (cheese-tax), and that’s pretty cool too.
I just think Odin would appreciate the level of detail with which I’d talk about something as ‘mundane’ as Norse-made cheese. That’s truly passion, is it not?
The Hall’s instructor is a skáld named Fjorn, or rather…an academic named Steven T. Dunn. He received a Master’s degree in History from the University of South Florida, where he concentrated on Norse and Celtic studies under Dr. Jennifer Knight. His thesis was titled “Weaponizing Ordinary Objects: Women, Masculine Performance, and the Anxieties of Men in Medieval Iceland.” He even spent some time in Iceland studying their language and wandering the Westfjords.